CHICAGO (CN) - Two Americans who worked for a private Iraqi security firm cannot press torture claims against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the full 7th Circuit ruled.
Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel worked for Shield Group Security, a private security firm operating in the Red Zone outside of Baghdad. Suspecting that their employer was involved in illegal arms trading and bribery, the pair began reporting alleged wrongdoings to the U.S. government.
The paid say Shield became suspicious of Vance and Ertel in April 2006, confiscated their credentials and effectively trapped them in the firm's compound. U.S. forces allegedly came to the compound and took the pair the U.S. Embassy.
But Vance and Ertel say their rescue soon turned into a nightmare. According to their complaint, U.S. officials transported them to Camp Cropper, where they were kept in solitary confinement and subjected to physical and psychological torture with no ability to contact their families or lawyers. Vance allegedly endured solitary confinement for three months, and Ertel for six weeks.
After being returned the United States without charges, Vance and Ertel sued Rumsfeld, claiming that he personally approved the interrogation and torture techniques they had endured.
U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen refused to dismiss, finding that the complaint "adequately alleged Secretary Rumsfeld's personal responsibility for their treatment."
A divided three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit affirmed in August 2011, but the court vacated that opinion in favor of an en banc review.
On Wednesday, the court voted 8-3 to dismiss the complaint.
The majority found that Vance and Ertel cannot seek relief under the Supreme Court decision, Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Federal Agents, which created a cause against federal employees for constitutional violations.
"Whatever presumption in favor of a Bivens-like remedy may once have existed has long since been abrogated," according to the 24-page lead opinion authored by Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote.
The limited background suggests that the judiciary should not interfere with the military chain of command without statutory authority, he added. Because Congress has the authority to regulate the military, its decision not to do so merits deference.
Indeed, statutes such as the Detainee Treatment Act, Torture Victim Protection Act, Military Claims Act and Foreign Claims Act already exist to protect citizens against military mistreatment, Easterbrook noted.
"These statutes have one thing in common: none provides for damages against military personnel or their civilian superiors," he wrote. "Some ... expressly block damages liability ... others provide compensation to victims of military errors or misconduct, but the compensation comes from the public fisc rather than private pockets."
Citing the Westfall Act, Public Health Service Act and Military Commissions Act, the ruling also states that "Congress often legislates to make doubly sure that federal employees will not be personally liable."
Allowing such claims to proceed against military personnel could result in the release of state secrets or change how government officials act when faced with difficult decisions, the majority also concluded..
"Plaintiffs believe that giving the Secretary of Defense a financial stake in the conduct of interrogators would lead the Secretary to hold the rights of detainees in higher regard - which surely is true, but that change would come at an uncertain cost in national security," Easterbrook wrote.